Everyone is entitled to legal representation. It’s a key tenet of the American legal system. But over the past few weeks, as nearly 200 women have faced their sexual abuser, Larry Nassar, in court, giving gut-wrenching testimony about the devastating impact his abuse has had on their lives, it’s been hard not to wonder how Nassar’s defense attorneys have been able to stomach their jobs.
Well, on Thursday, one of Nassar’s lawyers, Shannon Smith, gave us an answer.
Speaking to WWJ950 radio in Detroit, the defense attorney said she had “no problem representing someone like Larry Nassar,” and noted that she does not believe all of his victims are telling the truth.
“There is a huge part of me that does not believe that every one of those girls was victimized by him,” Smith said, as reported by NBC News. “While there may be some that were victimized… there are others that have come to believe they were victimized because of the way the case, in a way, spun out of control.”
Before addressing the dangerous implication of Smith’s comments, let’s review the facts. Currently, there are 265 women and girls who say they were sexually abused by Nassar during his time as an elite doctor with USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, and Twistars Gymnastics Club.
Earlier this month, 156 victims read victim-impact statements in a sentencing hearing for seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual assault in Ingham County, Michigan. This week, at least 65 women and girls are supposed to add their voices in a sentencing hearing for three counts of first-degrees sexual assault in Eaton County, Michigan. (Twenty-nine women gave victim-impact statements in Eaton County on Wednesday, and only seven of those were repeats of the Ingham County statements.) Every single statement has been harrowing.
In the vast majority of these cases, Nassar digitally penetrated his victims, without gloves, without warning, and for extended periods of time, under the guise of medical treatment. Often, he did so while aroused. Sometimes, he groped their breasts, too. Because of Nassar’s prestigious reputation in the medical and gymnastic communities, and because he was so skilled at grooming his victims and their families, some of his victims did not fully accept that what he did was abuse until this case made national news, thanks to stellar investigative reporting by the Indianapolis Star.
Smith seized on this fact, even reiterating Nassar’s favorite line of defense — that this was all a legitimate procedure.
“There were girls who had perfectly normal lives that never questioned the medical treatment done by Larry Nassar — and there is a legitimate medical treatment that involves touching sensitive areas and even penetrations,” Smith said.
Lindsey Lemke, one of the most outspoken survivors of Nassar’s abuse, was outraged by these comments on social media, pointing out the protocols that Nassar did not follow, and the fact that Smith has not even been in the courtroom for the majority of the two sentencing hearings.
It’s been incredibly moving to watch woman after woman, girl after girl, talk through their emotions in open court, just feet away from the man who preyed on them. While, as we know, more than a dozen victims tried to notify people of Nassar’s crimes when they happened, others were in denial, unable to comprehend the abuse, even though they knew it felt wrong at the time. Many of them have been inspired to come forward because they saw other survivors speaking up. It’s been powerful — or, according to Smith, opportunistic.
“Some of those girls, to be quite frank, they didn’t even know what to think because they never felt victimized. He was never inappropriate to them. And because of everything they’ve seen, they just feel like they must have been victimized. And I think that’s really unfortunate,” Smith said.
“I have a very hard time believing that my client could have even possibly assaulted that many people day in and day out in front of their parents, and that every single one of those things was a crime, but he was such a manipulator he got away with it,” she added. “I just can’t imagine that’s true.”
Luckily, Smith doesn’t have to believe it’s true, because the rest of the legal system, at long last, does. Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and has already been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, in addition to the 60 years he is serving in federal prison on child pornography charges that he pleaded guilty to last summer. He will never be a free man again.
Smith’s comments are so alarming that even Nassar himself has distanced himself from them.
“I have heard each and every impact statement made by the victims in my cases,” he said in a statement released by another attorney. “Their words have been meaningful, they have pierced my soul and I will carry their words with me for the rest of my life. I am sorry about this distraction at a time when the attention should be on the statements of these victims.”
On Friday, 35 more women are scheduled to give victim impact statements in Eaton County. Hopefully Smith will be among those listening.